By Katie Reilly
NEW YORK (Reuters) – The rural New York prison, that two inmates escaped from over the weekend, has long been nicknamed “Little Siberia” by officials who viewed its location in the state’s far north as an ideal place to tuck hardened offenders.
But residents of Dannemora town, New York, have come to view the 170-year-old prison mainly as an asset, a source of steady employment that poses little security concern.
With more than 450 state, federal and local law enforcement officers now in their sixth day of a manhunt for Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 34, following their escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility, that comfortable relationship is being tested.
“Everybody in town here always had in the back of their mind that an escape could happen, but no one ever thought it would,” said David Benjamin, a Dannemora town councilman who spent 25 years working at Clinton before retiring in April. “That place is a fortress.”
The high-profile search for the inmates has led authorities to question an industrial training supervisor in the prison tailor shop, widely identified by media as Joyce Mitchell, who “befriended the inmates and may have had some role in assisting them,” State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico said.
The manhunt has widened to neighboring Vermont but still includes the Dannemora area, where a stretch of highway just miles from the prison remained closed into Thursday so police could investigate yet another of more than 500 leads they have received in the case.
One lead came from a Philadelphia cab driver, who told police he may have given the two convicted killers a ride to 30th Street Station in the city center at about 4:00 a.m. on Thursday, NBC 10 television reported.
The prison escape has brought rural Dannemora more activity than its residents have experienced in years.
“It’s pretty desolate up here, and it’s built on the side of the mountain, so if you try to get out, once you get out, you have no idea where you’re going,” said Benjamin, 62. “It’s a good place to keep people that don’t want to be here.”
A 2014 report by the Correctional Association of New York, an independent nonprofit that inspects prisons and advocates for humane criminal justice, detailed the notoriety of the Clinton facility, where 91 percent of inmates have been convicted of a violent felony.
“Clinton has also had an infamous history of violence, brutality, and abuse by correction officers, as well as unrest, violence, organizing, and lawsuits by people incarcerated at the facility,” the report said.
In the main prison and annex combined, Clinton houses about 2,800 people. Inmates in the main prison serve a median minimum sentence of 14 years, almost three times as long as the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s system-wide median minimum of five years and two months, according to the report.
In its early years, Clinton was a prison camp where people convicted of crimes were sent to farm, build roads, mine and manufacture iron. It was briefly the site of death penalty executions, and around 1897, it began to specialize in inmates who had more felony convictions and trouble adjusting to prison.
Michael Maggy, co-owner of Maggy Marketplace Pharmacy in Dannemora, grew up watching his father, uncle, cousins and two grandfathers go to work inside the prison’s imposing cement walls.
He said the response by correctional officers to the prison break has renewed the community’s deep respect for prison employees.
“Everyone is careful, but they’ve allowed children to go to schools. They’ve allowed people to commute to work,” said Maggy, 53. “They’ve made us feel as secure as possible in this temporary new reality.”
(Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)